Kai Meaw X's cartoon of political exiles and their criticisms against the monarchy as a movie 'Parasite' trended in 2019
Pizza is unquestionably one of the best things ever happened to mankind. A form of it has been around since ancient times, and it is considered a crime for a person to say “I hate pizza.” But in Thailand, it is okay to say that. It means you do not want to be in jail for 15 years or longer because ‘pizza’ in Thai is also a political slang term for the lèse majesté law.
This example of slang might be something you miss when you search it on google. The Pizza Company and other competitors pay so that what we see are their ads and promotions. However, the term 'pizza' or 'พิซซ่า' also has another meaning because The Pizza Company’s hotline number 1112 happens to be similar to Section 112 or the lèse majesté law.
Obsession with numbers
A meme in which Pizza Company's 1112 changed to Royal Pizza's 112.
Most Thais are obsessed with numbers. There are many reasons for this. One of them is the lottery. On the 1st and 16th of the month, many Thais will open the government’s lottery website or sit in front of the TV to see the lottery results. In Western countries, a psychoanalyst may interpret dreams to reveal that you have incestuous desires. But in Thailand, dreams are interpreted as a way to become a millionaire by giving you the winning lottery number. The chances to win the first prize of 6,000,000 baht are 0.0001%. Your chances can multiply if you buy many tickets.
A scavenger winning the lottery always makes a good headline in Thailand. But it also says something about inequality. A report from last year showed that among state enterprises, it was the Government Lottery Office which contributed most revenue to the government — 40,278 million baht, more even than the state-owned oil and gas company, PTT. One reason for this may be that the lottery is one of the few ways to climb out of poverty. According to TDRI’s Somchai Jitsuchon, Thailand is “among the 10 most unequal countries on this planet for wealth distribution.” He estimated that “as much as 10% may have fallen to chronic poverty” while gaps in accessing high-quality social services - health, education, and welfare - are widening.
Lottery and economic inequality are not the only reasons Thais are obsessed with numbers. Thailand also has political inequality. Thais, especially those in authority, are also obsessed with particular numbers which can put critics in jail for expressing their thoughts.
- Section 14 of the Computer Crime Act can put you in prison for a maximum of 5 years for posting anything which threatens Thai security, the economy, or public safety.
- Section 116 of the Criminal Code can give you jail time of a maximum of 7 years for sedition.
- Section 198 of the Criminal Code can put you in jail for a maximum of 7 years for contempt of court.
However, Section 112 of the Criminal Code, the most famous number of all, can put you in jail from 3 to 15 years for defamation of the King, the Queen, the Heir Apparent and the Regent if there is one.
The lèse majesté law and ‘pizza’
Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a monarchy reformist, was photoshopped eating a pizza for speaking up about the monarchy for decades.
The lèse majesté law in Thailand has a long history. It had taken many forms, and it became Section 112 of the Criminal Code in the 1950s when Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat staged a military coup and began the restoration of the monarchy’s status to keep communism at bay. The penalty was increased to 15 years with a minimum of 3 years after the massacre of student activists in the 6 October incident of 1976 by Thanin Kraivichien, then Prime Minister and later Privy Councillor. Decades passed and the draconian law acquired a new nickname.
In a conversation with a senior reporter, he recalled that the term ‘pizza’ has been slang for the lèse majesté law since 2012. It probably came from the Same Sky Journal’s webboard. At that time, anti-monarchy accusations had been regularly used against the red shirts by ultra-royalists. The standout case was the prosecution of Ampon Tangnoppakul, or ‘Uncle SMS’, under the lèse majesté law. The 63-year-old was accused in 2011 of sending 4 SMS to Somkiat Khrongwatthanasuk, secretary of then Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. The messages were deemed offensive to the King and Queen and he was imprisoned for 20 years. He died in prison in 2012, 19 years before his sentence was complete.
Somsak Jeamteerasakul was photoshopped adding flavors to pizzas.
Some conservative intellectuals demanded that the ultra-royalists stop abusing the lèse majesté law, but prosecutions continued. A movement of legal scholars and citizens campaigned for an amendment to the lèse majesté law, but their attempts were unsuccessful. One who called for the total abolition of Section 112 at the time was Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a Thai historian now in exile who has campaigned for reform of the monarchy for decades. Meanwhile, lèse-majesté charges spread a climate of fear among the red shirts and the democratic opposition.
To alleviate the fear, the red shirts used humour against the anti-monarchy allegations. The number 112 has been an object of comical obsession. Seeing a product for sale with a price of 112 baht, a car registration plate with the number 112, a ticket with the number 112, or a game at level 112, was teasingly taken as a bad omen. The number 112 was expressed through many art forms, but the pizza hotline 1112 meant that ‘pizza’ was used to refer to the lèse majesté law.
So during a political discussion, asking if a person wants to eat pizza means asking if the person wants to eat it in jail. Many memes emerged around Somsak Jeamteerasakul, who was photoshopped eating pizza. A song “112 Royal Pizza” by Faiyen, a music band now in exile, also reflected the use of the term which has persisted until now.
Kai Meaw X's meme of Rangsiman Rome (a man holding a pizza) who spoke up in the parliament about the disappearance of Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a human rights activist in exile. Many speculated that he would be the next target of reprisal.
Section 112 has not been used for several years now, but prosecution for lèse majesté allegations nowadays is still very much like winning the lottery or getting a free pizza. You never know who will get the jackpot.
In the age of King Vajiralongkorn and the internet, the government knows too well that they cannot prosecute all critics. The Thai Security Plan for 2019-2022 admitted that the new generation’s bond to the monarchy has weakened. To prevent backlash, the Thai elite have avoided the use of the lèse majesté law and adopted “smart repression” tactics to spread fear. Instead of direct prosecution, other methods and institutions are used to censor and punish dissidents.
- In November 2018, BBC Thai reported that Facebook had taken down more than 735 lèse-majesté posts since 2016 at the request of the Thai government.
- In January 2019, Surachai Danwattananusorn, a political activist and former prisoner under the lèse majesté law, living in exile in Lao PDR, was found dead in the Mekong River.
- In August 2019, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a staunch critic of the monarchy, reported a physical attack against him using a chemical spray in his home in exile in Kyoto.
- In October 2019, political activist Karn Pongpraphapan was arrested for violation of the Computer Crime Act as Twitter users faced threats over comments on a royal motorcade.
- In January 2020, Buddhipongse Punnakanta, the Minister of Digital Economy and Society, paid visits to Facebook, Twitter, and Google headquarters asking for their cooperation in removing illegal content and fake news following court orders.
- In May 2020, four people in northern Thailand were summoned by police for their posts about the monarchy. They were forced to sign a document promising they will not do it again.
- In May 2020, a Krispy Kreme employee was dismissed for a Facebook post about the late King Bhumibol’s musical composition.
- In June 2020, Niranam_, a twitter user, faced 7 charges under the Computer Crime Act, the law which sometimes functions in place of the lèse majesté law. The penalty is up to 40 years.
As the Thai government becomes more insidious in repressing dissidents, the term pizza is less frequently used. However, the usage is here to stay. It is no longer strictly used to refer to the lèse majesté law, but also any repression mechanisms the Thai government uses to combat lèse-majesté activities.
It is counterintuitive to say it, but many Thais wish for a world without a pizza.
About this section
Thailand is a country with one of the most complicated political systems in the world, and one way of understanding it is through Thai political slang, which for the uninitiated can be just as complicated. Perhaps as you read this section, you will see how crazy Thai politics is and be inspired to work as hard possible to avoid it from happening in your country.
The Bangkok Post has had a Learning English from the News for years and Prachatai English thought it might be a good idea to do something a little more advanced and cutting edge by explaining Thai political vocabulary to an international audience. If you like it, please subscribe or donate.